The Neverending Journey

Picture the scene. It’s Sunday morning, we’ve not slept properly since Thursday night. We’ve been travelling for 3 days, and are on the final leg of our journey, a 7-hour ferry. Only we’ve been on it for 2 hours and it’s not set off yet.

There are chickens flying around the boat, which have just been recaptured by their owners, and there’s a group of about 12 kids crowding around our children pointing, laughing, and generally gawping at the on board entertainment (the existence of triplets).

The endurance test began with a couple of flights, then a long taxi ride and some haggling over bus fares, so fierce that even Fergus got into a shouting match. After a very short nights sleep in a truly disgusting hole of a hotel, we set off on our 14-hour bus journey (I kid you not). The bus was packed, people on stools all down the aisle, chickens, luggage and men smoking everywhere. The smell from the strange Indonesian clove-scented cigarettes is sickening; I thought I was going to throw up most of the way. Thankfully, the girls all dropped off, but sadly it coincided with us all having to exit the bus to go on our first ferry.

Two hours later, after an on board captive-audience toy sales pitch set in a fog of cigarette smoke, we clamboured back onto the bus, when Scarlett’s seat broke. It did provide some entertainment as it swung back further than the full recline position, so she was effectively lying on the lap of the lady behind her. Futile attempts by the bus conductor to repair it with some string continued the entertainment; in the end we were in luck and someone got off the bus so she could swap seats.

The girls all managed to get back to sleep, only to be turfed off the bus again for the complimentary lunch. Now, I’m not a fussy eater, as anyone will tell you, and I’ll try anything once. But there was something about the luke-warm vat of fish-head curry, left lying in the sun for hours, that just didn’t appeal somehow. We bought ice lollies. The only other food we’ve had en route is a pot noodle, some deep fried seaweed and a few biscuits, plus a few chewy mint sweets a nice Indonesian lady gave our children. There have been a few eaterys along the way, but you know when you senses scream food poisoning? Spontaneous 3 day fast.

It was the last 6 hours or so that were the worst. I was just daydreaming and looking out of the window, lost in Adele’s greatest hits on my ipod shuffle, when the terrible thing happened. My ears physically recoiled as the on-board sound system spluttered into life, booming Indonesian pop hits at full volume, making even listening to music through headphones impossible. This woke up everyone on the bus (most of whom had been sleeping); then TV screens were pulled down from the ceiling with karoke-style words on so you could sing along. Thankfully, no one did. I’m not quite sure what planet the driver was on at this point. I guess he must have been thinking, “I know what this bus of overtired, frazzled, grateful-to-be sleeping people need; some high energy, high volume music to wake everyone up and rattle their nerves to breaking point.”

I thought about getting off, but that wouldn’t have helped. Miles from anywhere, I’d only have to find another bus, which would be the same. Possibly worse. I thought about crying. That wouldn’t help either. I thought about the poor children, who seemed to be dealing with it better than me. So I smiled, looked out of the window, and tried to daydream through the cacophony. We were bound to arrive eventually.

Eventually arrived rather sooner than expected. Around 2 hours from our final destination, we were told the bus goes no further, and we have to change busses. Odd, as we’d bought a direct ticket, but never mind. We were ushered to our new bus, a small, ancient tin can, pitch black with no driver. Luckily, there was one guy who spoke great English, who explained that we were welcome to sleep on the bus, and it would be setting off to our final destination at 5am. It was 9pm. So much for direct. He was very helpful though, and showed us a to nearby hotel, where we took their top priced ‘VIP room’ (£9) and were treated to a reasonably clean, not too damp resting place, where we snatched 6 hours sleep.

The 4.30 alarm was a killer, but we made it onto the bus by 5am. It set off at 6am. We were still in plenty of time for the ferry though, as it was suppose to set off at 8am, but set off at 10am. At least we have seats on the boat, and the TV is on but actually muted with subtitles (this is a first). We’ve seen some World Cup qualifier highlights, and are now 10 mins into Pretty Woman. All good so far. Here’s to hoping that the karaoke isn’t about to start up.

It was always going to be a tough one. We were pretty tired after clocking up the kilometers in Java, followed swiftly by a flight up to Borneo for our boat trip, which was spectacular but remote. In fact, we called a family discussion to decide if the journey from the heart of the jungle to the island of Komodo was worth it. I think we were all tempted to check into one of the great value 5 star hotels in Java and hole up for a week instead. But where’s the fun in that? And surprisingly, it was the girls who persuaded us to take this once in a lifetime chance to see the Komodo dragons.

It didn’t help that we deliberated so long over the price of flying a huge chunk of the journey, that when we finally decided to fly, the flights had sold out. And that the bus turned out to be quite a lot more than the guidebook suggested, despite shopping around and haggling (which did almost halve the first quote), but even so our 3 days of torture have saved us the princely sum of £90. If there’s a flight back, we’re on it, whatever the price!

We look a motley crew as we make the final leg of this epic journey. In fact, we sat down for a coffee & the café owner brought out a comb for the children. The town of Labuan Bajo looms on the horizon, where the Lonely Planet promises a café called The Lounge that sells ‘home comfort food, think burgers that need 2 hands, fish & chips…’. Now that’s something to look forward to. And there’s beer available as it’s a predominately Catholic corner of Indonesia; we’ve seen nothing but Biltang Zero (a no-alcohol beer) for a couple of weeks.

We should be able to afford the luxury of staying still for 3 whole days, our longest stay in Indonesia, before taking a 2-day trip to Komodo from Labuan Bajo. The dragons are something I’ve been longing to see for years, so I’m sure the horror of this journey will melt away once we arrive and prepare for the trip.

However, we then have to get back again…!

Waiting for a taxi to the airport in Pankalan Bun, Borneo

Waiting for a taxi to the airport in Pankalan Bun, Borneo

Collecting our bags at Surabaya airport between connections

Collecting our bags at Surabaya airport between connections

Walking to the ferry with "dodobears" in Sape, Sumbawa

Walking to the ferry with “dodobears” in Sape, Sumbawa

Favorit by name... but not our favourite by any stretch.

Favorit by name… but not our favourite by any stretch.

Passing the time with some light programming during our 7-hour ferry crossing to Flores

Passing the time with some light programming during our 7-hour ferry crossing to Flores

Nearly there!

Nearly there!

We're there! Pulling into Labuan Bajo harbour, Flores. We've made it!

We’re there! Pulling into Labuan Bajo harbour, Flores. We’ve made it!

The famously-beautiful Flores sunset. Best enjoyed with a very well-earned beer.

The famously-beautiful Flores sunset. Best enjoyed with a very well-earned beer.

800 Kilometers, 6 Busses, 5 Days, 3 Volcanoes, 2 Trains and 1 Temple

It’s been quite a trip through Java. Braving daunting distances on rickety old busses, we’ve covered a serious amount of ground. We’ve travelled alongside chickens, with our bags piled on top of us, feet inside a market trader’s basket due to lack of space on the bus. But we made it, and were rewarded for our endurance by some truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Merapi was our first stop, where we groaned our way out of bed at 3am for a sunrise hike in the hills. Merapi is the most active volcano in the world, having had a full-scale explosion in 2010, the damage from which can still be seen in the landscape. The surrounding area has new forest growing amid the scorched remains of huge old trees, with lava trails hardened into new riverbeds.

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Next stop was Borobudur. It’s a huge, 1400 year old Buddhist temple that was overgrown by forest for circa 1000 years until it was rediscovered in the 19th Century by the famous Sir Raffles. The loving detail carved into each stone coupled with the beautiful landscape make an awe inspiring scene. My personal highlight is the tale of how historians have studied the boats depicted in the stone carvings. Doubts about the ancient Indonesians’ ability to sail to Africa had to be cast aside when they actually sailed a full-scale copy all the way to Madagascar.

Outside the temple of Borobudur

Outside the temple of Borobudur

One of the thousands of carvings in the stones

One of the thousands of carvings in the stones

Bromo was our next destination. Rising from a bed of volcanic ash, the lunar-like slopes of Bromo and its neighboring peaks are a photographers dream. It’s a shame Ferg’s SLR camera chose this moment to stop working. (And lucky we have a half-decent pocket camera too). It was my first chance to climb to the rim of a volcano’s crater and peer inside its mouth. With sulphurous gas swirling constantly from the centre I found it terrifying to be so close to such a natural wonder, and felt very far from home.

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We were unsure if it would be worth the journey to see another volcano at Ijen. It involved 7 hours on the worst quality bus we’ve seen so far (quite a claim) plus a further 3 hours in a jeep, and a vigorous walk. Astonishingly, it was worth every minute. Quite unlike the other 2, Ijen has a sulphurus lake inside its crater. It’s a steep climb, but as you round the final corner you are rewarded with a change in landscape so dramatic and unique, you feel you have entered another world.

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Java is quite simply the most astonishing place I’ve ever been. Arduous and uncomfortable, yes, but it has left me with a sense of being exceptionally lucky to have seen such things. It reminds you that ‘normal’ life at home is far from normal, the vast majority of people in the world do not live in a small semi in suburbia like ours.

I wonder how it will impact the children to have seen such amazing sights so early in life?

In The Mist

Dawn in Tanjing Puting

It’s early morning – not even five-thirty – and I’m standing alone on the open deck of our klotok, the wide-decked, open-sided river boat we’ve hired for three days of travel deep into the jungles of Borneo. I feel a very long way from home.

All around, the river water is a peaty red, darkening to glossy black away from the banks where it flows smoothly past our mooring. The blackness is broken only by the reflection of the brightening sky and the occasional deep splash of a surfacing fish. With each splash I turn quickly, hoping I’ll see one of the crocodiles that ate the traveller who ignored warnings not to swim on this very spot a few years ago. I don’t see any but that doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby. The shadows, reeds and fallen trees along the banks could easily hide a dozen crocodiles.

My eyes search the thick jungle swamps on each bank. There are macaques here. I can hear their woo-wooing nearby but haven’t managed to spot any yet. Not that I’m surprised. Their fur blends perfectly with the soaring white-grey tree trunks. Nor have I seen kingfishers, fly-catchers, hornbills, tree frogs, proboscis monkeys or any of the other thousands of species that make this a “biodiversity hotspot”. Only the insects are visible this morning; dragonflies the length of my middle finger, bees, beetles and smaller, indeterminate creatures I hear as passing buzzes beside my ear. And if our trek into the jungle yesterday is anything to go by, I wouldn’t have to go far from our boat to find thick columns of termites or wild, dangerous scatterings of the fire ants that we all fell painfully prey to.

But I don’t mind that I can’t see anything just now. The forest is alive with life. I can hear it. And somehow, gazing out into the confusion of trees, vines, ferns, water plants and bushes, ears alight with whoops, clicks and bird calls, this feels like the most natural state in the World; in distinguishing the complexities of these sights and sounds, I feel my brain slipping into its natural gear. There isn’t a straight line in sight, nor a single colour that diverges from the forest’s natural greens, greys and browns, except with reds and blacks of the water below and the blue of the lightening sky.

I wonder if any of the orangutans we saw yesterday are nesting nearby. And whether this sensation of oneness and peace is how they feel. Their slow, measured gazes and the way they swing through the treetops at whatever speed each tree bends under their weight seemed to imply so.

We’re moored at Camp Leakey, the longest-running research station in the World, where for the last 40 years , Dr. Galdikas has been observing wild orangutans as well as rehabilitating captured ones.

These thoughts are heightened by the thrill of being so far from civilization. There isn’t a hospital for many hundreds of miles and few roads through the jungle on which to reach one… well, except the charity-run orangutan hospital half-way up-river. I guess they could probably set a broken bone at a push.

It took two full days to get here but today we’ll turn our klotok around and begin the return journey, stopping to visit one more orangutan feeding station on the way. This is the remotest place we’ll visit on our travels. From here on we’ll slowly be returning to modernity.

I was going to end there, leaving this post as an elegy on Man’s Primal Being, Oneness With Nature and other romantic daybreak thoughts. But then…

With a crash, a tree beside us swung forwards, showering leaves onto the river. For a moment I couldn’t see what had caused the sudden commotion. The jungle fell silent. Then, the tree snapped back, the leaves spread out into the current, leaving a single, large orangutan a few metres from where I stood. He watched me. I watched him. As entrances go, I had to admit it was impressively dramatic. Then he swung over to where our boat’s mooring rope secured us to a fallen tree.

Was he going to pull us to shore? Come aboard? He gave the rope an exploratory tug but our klotok is big and would have needed a much more serious effort to shift. Looking disappointed, he gave up and climbed onto a comfortable-looking tree, descending occasionally to pick a pandanas shoot or fish a discarded piece of fruit from the water.

Slowly, the rest of our family awoke, drifting forwards to join the mutual contemplation, orang1 and orangutan.

Then the other klotok moored nearby woke up, too, and began calling and throwing watermelon rinds into the river. The spell was broken; the orangutan moved off and we retreated inside for a breakfast of our own.

[1] In both Indonesian and Malay, orang means “man”. Orang utan means “man of the forest”.

Buying Coffee in a Coffee Plantation

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

After paying our driver extra to make a detour to a remote coffee plantation we’d read about, we wanted to fulfill our dream of sipping coffee in a coffee plantation in Java.  We had images of strolling through the fields in pressed linen suits, as per the Kenko advert from the ’80’s.

We must have left the pressed linen behind somewhere, so we had to make do with our just-climbed-a-volcano clothes (think volcanic ash, sulphur stains, faint eggy smell).  And it took quite a long time to find anyone to serve us in the coffee shop part of the plantation. And a bit longer to establish that we might want to buy some coffee.

Eventually, we were able to sip our cups of delicious, fresh, Java coffee, and to see the beans being grown.

However, buying some coffee to take away with us seemed like an impossible task.  There was a glass cabinet fill of tea bags (!) with one lonely pack of Ijen Volcano Locally Produced Coffee in the corner.  After much pointing and smiling, I managed to buy the pack.  I tried to ask if they had any more (holding up 3 fingers, pointing, asking ‘You have more?’).

“Sorry, finished,” came the reply.

Like like trying to organise the proverbial party in a brewery, it seems that buying coffee in a coffee plantation is not as easy as it might sound.

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Raw Coffee Beans (straight from the plant, just peel the pod)

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Say ‘Coffee’!

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Finally enjoying the long sought cop of coffee on a plantation in Java

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We get a lesson in coffee growing from our driver

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Indonesian Hospitality

We got the chance to visit an Indonesian home yesterday. The circumstances could have been better, but it did restore my slightly shaken faith in the good people of this land; I have an underlying belief that most people are nice. And it seems that most people are. But not everyone.

We should have seen the warning signs really. But after 10 hours of train travel, the offer of a private minibus from the train station all the way to our remote mountain village (rather than going to the bus station and taking a public bus) seemed like a great offer. The price was pretty cheap, and there were some French tourists heading our way also using the minibus, so we clambered on.

The first sign was that we went to their office first, where we had to disembark and pay. Not too much of a worry. Then they tried to sell us various guided tours; but not too much of a worry given that this happens a lot around here. The real warning sign was the National Park Entry Ticket they tried to sell us for 217,000 IDR each (the guide book says it costs 2,450 IDR). They had a copy of one with a date stamp, which they showed to us several times to ‘prove’ how much the price had gone up. I knew that was a scam, but we explained we would buy our National Park Entry from the park rangers, and they accepted this. We knew they were trying it on, but thought that would be the end of it.

About 4km from our destination, the minibus stopped and the driver claimed this was the park boundary (we knew from the guidebook this was not true). He tried to collect the 217,000 IDR from all of us. We all refused to pay. There was much discussion, and the Indonesian driver became very angry and insistent that we pay. He told us he wouldn’t drive us the rest of the way. He was scaring us, we didn’t like the situation at all. So, we got off the minibus and walked.

It was a grueling 4km. With a 20kg backpack each for me and Ferg, and the kids with a fair load each, we made slow progress up the seriously steep slopes in the dark. The kids did so well, no complaining, just one foot in front of the other, steadily gaining height. The Nepali training paid off. The stars were out and the mountains in shadow looked beautiful in the twilight. However, it was very hard work.

Eventually, after an hour, we stopped and sat down on our backpacks for some water and some peanuts. A family came out of a nearby house and asked us where we were heading. Neither our Bahasa Indonesia nor their English were enough for the full story, but they established that we were heading for Café Lava Hostel, it was dark and late, we had tired children and heavy bags, and they wanted to help us.

The man of the house took Ferg and a couple of bags on ahead to the hostel on his motorbike, while me and the children were shepherded inside for hot coffee, and offered some snacks. It was so lovely to be looked after by complete strangers, I found it very touching. The home was just a couple of rooms; the main front room containing a giant bed (that I suspect the whole family sleep on), a TV, a table, and stack of plastic chairs, which were laid out for us as visitors. The TV was showing what was clearly the Indonesian equivalent of the X Factor, and the family were sitting around with blankets around their shoulders (it’s cold up here in the mountains at night) drinking coffee, smoking the strange clove scented cigarettes that abound in Indonesia, and having what we would call in England a ‘Big Night In’! The house was very different to ours, the snacks and drinks completely different, but we were united by our appreciation of the X Factor and temporarily bonded over a pigeon English discussion of the merits of the various singers. What a lovely experience.

After several motorbike trips up and down the mountain, ferrying children, bags etc, we all arrived safely at our hostel. The kind man asked for no money, but we gave him some anyway. I am so glad that we met with this kindness to take away the bitter taste that the minibus driver left us with.

As we walked into the hostel, we met the French tourists from the minibus. It turns out that after a stand off, the driver eventually took them all to the destination, and the money was not paid. But hey, we had an experience on the way, and we felt safer walking. I would not have got back on his bus, who knows where he would have taken us. All’s well that ends well, and it’s public transport and meter taxis all the way for us in Indonesia from now on.

Indonesian Adventure

Put your backpack on, come on, come on

Put your backpack on, come on, come on

Planning ahead for our next country, Indonesia, has been on my mind for a while now. It’s a country I’ve been very much looking forward to from the moment I found out that we could walk up volcanoes there. It makes me feel like a little kid when I think how excited I will be to walk up a volcano. And what makes it even more fun is walking up one with 3 little kids!

As well as the volcano treks, there is an abundance of adventurous activities available to the backpacker who ventures into Indonesia. Of course, there’s Bali, but I think we’ll give it a miss seeing as we have seen so many wonderful beaches already. What really gets me excited is the chance to see some wildlife. There’s Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat.  Plus there’s a remote but fairly famous Orang Utan Sanctuary in a National Park on the Indonesian southern side of Borneo where you can live on a boat for a few days and spot them in the wild.

Plus, of course, Fergus wants to do some more diving.

However, joining the dots between the best volcanoes, the komodo dragons, the orang utans and the legendary dive sites leaves us with a daunting set of journeys on our hands. The initial flight to Indonesia is already a complex set of 3 airplanes with fairly long waits between them spanning a 26 hour period, thanks to schedule changes by Air Asia. And we’re 2 days travel from the airport. There’s no information online for the local companies who sometimes operate flights between our chosen destinations, and the Lonely Planet bus and boat estimates are wearisomely pessimistic e.g. 36-48 hour boat journeys – and, I quote, “Don’t expect a cruise ship.” Hmmmm.

However, I am refreshed enough by our time in the Philippines to face the challenge head on and see it as all part of the fun. The ‘travelling’ part of travelling is sometimes the best bit. I’ve seen some amazing things out of the windows of our bus/boat/taxi/train/airplane/helicopter journeys. So it is with an optimistic outlook that we set off tomorrow on what promises to be an epic, but awe inspiring, trip to Indonesia.